Not so Black and White: Systemic Racism and its Role in Public Policy

Unpacking Equity is a collaboration between the Public Policy and Governance Review and the Gender, Diversity and Public Policy Initiative (GDPP) at the School of Public Policy and Governance. This series aims to explain equity-related policy issues and break down complicated topics involving equity, diversity and inclusion. Policy professionals can gain a better understanding of these complex issues in order to incorporate an equity lens into their practice. To learn more, please get in touch with the GDPP.

Harpreet Sahota

Racism comes in different forms and it harms people in many ways. It’s when someone tells you to “go back to your country” when you’re literally standing in it, but it’s also about the power dynamics that encourage people to justify the use of those words.

The above is an example of racism at the individual level, where individuals intentionally behave in a manner that has a harmful effect on members of a race/ethnic group that is different from their own. Racism at the local or individual level perpetuates racist beliefs, attitudes, and actions and is reinforced through systemic racism: the manifestation of the racist ideologies and attitudes that unjustly promote inequality for racialized groups. Put more simply, systemic racism refers to a cycle in which powerful institutions guide the beliefs and values that inherently become part of the norm. This creates the implicit biases that result in the legitimization of policies that empower the powerful. People who aren’t directly affected by this form of racism are less likely to acknowledge how this is detrimental for minority groups and therefore more likely to continue to support existing laws and policies.

Essentially, governments and public bodies have historically promoted agendas based on racism in an effort to maintain a status quo that benefits the dominant race. So does that mean we are generalizing and claiming that all public officials are inherently racist? Not exactly. But let’s not dismiss the idea that public officials are people and that they can be racist.

There are two types of systemic racism. The first is institutional racism, which refers to “the ways in which institutional policies and practices create different outcomes for different racial groups” in a manner that disadvantages people of colour. This isn’t always done in an explicit manner, for example, Quebec’s Bill C-62, but nonetheless the intentions can be very clear.

The second type of systemic racism is structural, which refers to the normalization of laws, policies, and broader norms that routinely advantage white people while producing on-going adverse outcomes for people of colour. This includes the broader, larger system of white domination that has become entrenched in all aspects of society. Structural racism is deeply impactful and allows for the emergence of other forms of racism.

In both contexts, we’re referring to the ways in which policies that are developed by the dominant race have adverse impacts on minority groups, which are linked to a variety of subsequent issues that often shape and misguide our beliefs about a particular group of people. Consequently, systemic racism is fundamental to understanding how unequal outcomes arise and how they disadvantage racialized communities.

In North America, Indigenous people have been (and continue to be) victims of systemic racism. Most Canadians don’t know enough about the extensive history of Indigenous peoples in North America, much of which includes colonization, genocide and assimilation.* Lacking this knowledge has significant implications both in public policy and public discussion. If we don’t acknowledge that Indigenous people do not have the same access to employment, healthcare, housing, and education (to name a few), it is easy to misunderstand how the history of oppression led to the poor socio-economic conditions in many of these communities. In addition to lacking this knowledge, we are often misled by the way these issues are shown in the media. This misrepresentation is harmful because the discriminatory beliefs and ideologies that oppress an entire group of people ultimately become part of the norm.

As an example, consider the case of Pamela George, a woman of the Sakimay First Nation who was brutally beaten and murdered by two white middle-class men in Regina, Saskatchewan. The trial focused on George’s occasional sex work and her drug addiction, with no consideration for how the historical context of Indigenous peoples would have played a role in this woman’s “lifestyle.” This case presents some historically familiar and deeply disturbing characteristics of entitlement, violence and misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples. The intersectionality of Indigenousness and gender is critical to understanding the multiple oppressions that this minority group has long been subject to. Economic marginalization and poverty (and their related effects) have disproportionately affected Indigenous women, encouraging them to leave their homes and move into urban centers where they often engage in “survival sex work.” Colonialist notions of Indigenous inferiority have played an instrumental role in normalizing violence against Indigenous women, who have become the most disadvantaged and vulnerable group in Canada. Although the pre-determined social conditions significantly hinder their ability to pursue the same opportunities as non-Indigenous women, they continue to be stigmatized as sexual objects, increasing their vulnerability to violence.

The murder of Pamela George is not an isolated case. The RCMP released a report in 2013 which revealed 1,181 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. Beyond that, in recent Canadian history: 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their homes and placed into residential schools to be assimilated into Canadian society; suicide and self-harm among Indigenous communities has become a national crisis, accounting for the leading cause of death up to age 44; and mental health and addiction issues have posed a major threat to Indigenous youth.

While some of the poor outcomes that Indigenous (and other racialized) communities face are widely known, we generally don’t discuss that these outcomes are a result of policies based on beliefs of white privilege and Indigenous inferiority. We tend to focus on the implicit biases that we have about an entire race of people, rather than acknowledging systemic racism and its related issues as a determinant for these outcomes.

Systemic racism is deep-rooted and can be seen in the ways that specific minority groups are disadvantaged in their everyday life. This shapes peoples’ experiences primarily based on race, ethnicity and religion. This becomes increasingly difficult to address when disadvantaged communities lack representation in government. But even with increased representation, these biases and opinions can still be present.

At the individual level, we may not be able to address these issues on a wide scale. However, we can acknowledge the ways in which certain communities have been disadvantaged to prevent the perpetuation of harmful perceptions of races and ethnicities that are different from our own.

* Find more information in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada.


Harpreet Sahota is a second year MPP candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Administrative Studies with Specialized Honours in Management from York University. She is passionate about social policy and her interests include diversity and anti-racism, equity and mental health awareness. When she is not in the library, she enjoys being outdoors or eating a plethora of bananas.